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  • Writer's pictureMikelle Drew

28 Days of Black Fashion History: Arthur Smith

Born in Cuba and raised in Brooklyn, New York, Arthur Smith at an early age, began to show his artistry, talents that would lead him to become a master of modern jewelry design.

Arthur received a scholarship to Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art and was among a handful of Black students attending the college. His advisors tried to steer him toward architecture, suggesting he would be able to find a job in the civil sector. However, Arthur eventually majored in sculpture which proved to be invaluable training for his eventual profession in jewelry design. Upon graduating in 1940, he began working with local youth organizations and at night, he took a jewelry-making class at New York University. Those classes and a friendship/mentorship with jewelry designer Winifred Mason would help guide his artistic career.

African American female model wearing metal cuff bracelet designed by Art Smith.
Model is wearing Art Smith’s “Modern Cuff” Bracelet, circa 1948, Photo Peter Basch

Arthur eventually became Mason’s full time assistant in her jewelry studio. In 1946 he opened his own studio in the village, but moving to an “Italian block” became an issue, making him feel dangerously unwanted. Not long after, he would move to West Fourth Street, closer to Washington Square Park where he felt more at home. The new location was also a great business move, and his career began to flourish

Some of Art Smith's jewelry sketches.
Some of Art Smith's jewelry sketches.

Arthur sold his jewelry in craft stores in some major cities and by the 1950s, he established business relationships with larger department stores like Bloomingdales and Milton Heffing in New York City as well as other exclusive boutiques around the country.

One might say that a friendship with dancer and choreographer, Tally Beatty, is what helped him begin to design on a grander scale. Beatty would introduce him to the dance world “salon” of Frank and Dorcas Neal, and it was there that he began to meet leading Black artists such as James Baldwin, Lena Horne, Billy Strayhorn, and Harry Belafonte to name a few. Smith began to design for several avant-garde, Black dance companies, pushing the boundaries of his aesthetics, designing on a grander, more theatrical scale.

Art Smith (American, 1917–1982). Ellington Necklace, circa 1962.  Silver, turquoise, amethyst, rhodonite
Art Smith (American, 1917–1982). Ellington Necklace, circa 1962. Silver, turquoise, amethyst, rhodonite. Brooklyn Museum, Gift of Charles L. Russell, 2007.61.4. Creative Commons-BY (Photo: Brooklyn Museum, 2007.61.4_PS2.jpg)

He was featured in Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar and mentioned in The New Yorker’s shopper’s guide. By the 1960’s his client base had increased as well as his requests for custom designs. He would be commissioned to design a brooch for Eleanor Roosevelt and made cufflinks for Duke Ellington, incorporating notes from his famous song “Mood Indigo”.

Smith was honored with several exhibitions showcasing his work including a one man exhibition in 1969 at New York’s Museum of Contemporary Crafts (now the Museum of Art and Design).

In the catalog, he wrote, “A piece of jewelry is in a sense an object that is not complete in itself. Jewelry is a ‘what is it?’ until you relate it to the body. The body is a component in design just as air and space are. Like line, form, and color, the body is a material to work with. It is one of the basic inspirations in creating form.”

Cuff bracelet of copper and brass by Art Smith, c. 1948 (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
Cuff bracelet of copper and brass by Art Smith, c. 1948 (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

There were three additional exhibits honoring his work after he died in 1982. Art Smith’s contributions to the jewelry industry are still felt today. His artistic style—his love for shapes and patterns—can be seen in a lot of contemporary jewelry and still influences many designers today.

This blog posting was originally published on February 20, 2018.

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